Grade Retention

Few topics in American education get as much mixed support or refute as retention. Retention is the formal term for "being held back" instead of advancing to the next grade.

The common belief decades ago was that if a student wasn't able to master the material the first time around, hopefully another chance would allow him or her to do so. It's a belief that is based off of many other things we do in life; learning to ride a bike takes practice, and so does learning how to jump rope. Why should we expect that all children will pass 5th grade the first time?

Following that logic, we could assume that grade retention would increase a students' capability to do learn "grade-level" materials. Sure, students will learn more if they are "allowed" (as if it were a gift or desirable opportunity) to retake a grade level. The more time you have to practice something, the better you'll do at it. For many students who have failed a grade level once, forcing them to retake the grade will teach them how to better "fake it till you make it" (by memorizing the correct answers without grasping the actual academic concept.)

Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Using Einstein's schema, let's look another at retention. If kids do better by repeating a grade, why is it a bad idea?

Lots of reasons.

Let's also go back to the one documented advantage of retention and take a second look. Data shows us, over and over again, that students will show academic improvements for 1-2 years after being retained. Research really does prove this.

(Need the abbreviated version? Here's a handout from the National Association of School Psychologists which is designed to be given to parents when retention is being considered for their child.)

However, those gains stop showing up when we look at what happens at the child's performance their third year after retention (and beyond.) Grades stagnate again. Students are again back at their low level of achievement, and now they are a year older than their peers. Well, maybe retention wasn't the answer after all? What's the end result?

Short term gains (1-2 years) equal long term pains.

To be fair, data also shows that students who have high levels of adaptability and positive outlooks on life (e.g., adapt well to change, work through their struggles, and maintain a positive attitude when faced with adversity) tend to feel less of a negative impact toward being retained. These students may actually demonstrate a favorable opinion of retention after being retained.

The catch-22 to the above fact: students who adapt well and continue to work hard when faced with problems are less likely to be retained in the first place. These students are likely to seek out additional support from teachers and family, if they are faced with an academic challenge. Most of these kids won't have to worry about retention. For those optimistic students who are retained, and believe that retention was a positive life experience for them, it's likely that they would also say the same thing about having root canals or battling through a harsh breakup with a high school sweetheart.

The single-most powerful predictor of high school dropout is grade retention. Period. Data shows that dropping out of high school is 6-10 times more likely for students retained just a single year. This number grows even large for students who were retained more than once. It should almost go without saying that there is some social discomfort in knowing that (1) your current classmates are moving on without you, (2) you'll be left behind to make new friends, and (3) the new class will know you weren't smart enough to be with the older class. That's a quick three strikes on the social ladder. Here's another article discussing your child's mental health when considering retention.

So, Mr. Wright, what can we do to help struggling students? Ah, I thought you'd never ask. The best way to improve student performance is to provide increasingly intense academic interventions and supports, while continuing to provide access to quality curriculum and instruction. (For more on this topic, read this short summary from and then come back and let's look at some possible "Interventions.")

In graduate school, I wrote a research paper on the dangerous practice of retention. I'm posting it here in case you'd like a more research-based position against retention.

You can also read the entire NASP Position Statement (White Paper) on Grade Retention.

For lots of other additional links and resources which advocate against retention, check out another page on Retention and Social Promotion.